How to Name Characters

I can’t start working on a piece of writing until I have the right names for my main characters. Characters are, after all, like your children, and you need to take the time to find the perfect name. And once you do find the right name, the character becomes real.

I love scouring my baby name book when I start working on a project. These are the methods I use when trying to find that perfect name.

IMG_3500
This is the baby name book I use to find the perfect names for my characters.

Naming Dos and Don’ts

  • Don’t use names that look or sound the same.
    Nothing confuses readers (or me) more than having several character names in a story that look or sound the same. If you have a Jon, Don, and Ron all in the same story, readers are very likely to mix them up.
  • Don’t use too many names that start with the same letter
    Likewise, don’t have names that all start with the same letter to avoid confusion. When we read, our eyes move across the words quickly and our minds fill in the blanks. So if you have a John, a Jake, and a Jack all in the same story—three names all the same length and starting with the same letter—your reader is likely to ix them up as well.
  • Do use names a reader can actually pronounce and remember.
    This is mostly a problem in speculative fiction. To make their science fiction or fantasy stories interesting, writers will sometimes come up with names that look and sound really cool. But when readers encounter these made up names, they have no idea how to pronounce them and thus have trouble remembering them. The point of all of these first few tips are to make things as clear as possible to your readers.
  • Don’t use the names of people you know.
    It’s best when writing to just stay away from using the names of people you know well. Even if the character is portrayed in a nice way, it can still cause a lot of problems with you and the person the character is named after.

How to Choose

  • Name Meanings
    Using the meaning behind names is definitely my favorite way to choose the right name for a character. You can use the meaning behind a name to convey a certain trait about a character or to add irony by making the character the opposite of the meaning. You can play with name meanings in the story itself like I did in Somewhere Only We Know. Or you can not mention the meaning at all and leave it up to the reader to look up if they choose. However you use a name meaning, it can add another level of depth to your story.
  • Sounds
    Don’t only play with the meaning of names, but take into consideration how they sound. You don’t want to have a soft character with a harsh sounding name or vice versa. Or maybe you do. Sound is another way that you can play with your character names to find the perfect one.
  • Keep a List
    Finding names takes a long time, time that should be used for actually writing the story. To save time for when you start your next project, you can keep a running list of names you like. I’ve come across many names over the years that I’ve saved in my mind to use one day in a story, but it’d be nice to have an actual list. Then you can organize it by gender/genre/sound/etc to help you easily find the perfect name the next time you have a new character.
  • Time Period/Age/Setting Appropriate
    Lastly, keep in mind when writing historical fiction or older characters in contemporary fiction that names should be time and age appropriate and that characters from other places should have names appropriate for their settings. You can look up online where and when baby names where popular. That way you can make sure you don’t give your character in your story set in England in the nineteenth century a modern American name.

Resources

  • Baby Name Books
    There are so many baby name books out there that list names by meanings or other categories. I use the one in the picture above.
  • The Internet
    I prefer actual baby name books because when you go online you have to have an idea of what you’re looking for instead of just flipping through, but you can still find name meanings and time/places of popularity online.
  • Scrivener
    If you use the writing software Scrivener, they have a name generator! Just go to Tools->Writing Tools->Name Generator (for the Windows version) and you can search for names by gender, origin, meaning and letter. It comes up with first and/or last names and will generate any number of names. You can also save your favorites.

What tips/methods to do use when naming characters.

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